343 Industries had challenges in front of it when it began to create "Halo 4": Take a beloved video-game series from the original developer, Bungie, maintain the legacy established through a decade of development and reignite enthusiasm by delivering something new.
That is a daunting list, but 343 Industries clearly was up to the task. "Halo 4" -- which comes out Tuesday, more than five years after "Halo 3" -- is a thrilling adventure and takes the Xbox 360's flagship sci-fi franchise headlong into the future. The magic formula is intact, but the new developer assures that "Halo" is on a path to growth, not stagnation.
Recent "Halo" entries felt ancillary to the core story. "Halo 4" returns to the resonant drive of the series -- Master Chief and his unrelenting defense of humanity. For the first time, the story has an emotional core that grounds the fiction: the connection between John and his AI, Cortana. As the two characters face a reemerging threat to the galaxy, we finally gain insight into the mysterious Forerunner race hinted at since "Combat Evolved." Along the way, 343 Industries plays around with heady sci-fi concepts, from the nature of artificial intelligence to the planned shaping of a species' evolution. These ideas might be bewildering to newcomers, but the story is the most cohesive and well-structured in the series.
As I played through that story, I was struck by the extraordinary production values on display. "Halo 4" is a visual marvel, with gorgeous environments accentuated by high-dynamic-range lighting and breathtaking particle effects. However, the experience is more than the graphics; I rarely feel the need to call out the sound effects of a game, but "Halo" 4 is an exception. The first time I fired a gun, I was startled by the forceful burst, and the impression only improves as the fights progress. From the distorted static of a scrambled audio communication to the revving propulsion drive of a speeding alien vehicle, "Halo 4"'s audio drags players into the game world by their ears.
Several stirring new musical themes add to the effect, but those melodies are sometimes obscured within the sound mix. I wish "Halo 4" allowed for manual adjustment of the audio mix like most high-end games on the market.
Enemies have defined the feel of "Halo" game play since the beginning, and "Halo 4" balances familiarity and novelty. The Covenant returns (for reasons the in-game story fails to articulate), providing the classic experience that "Halo" fans love -- popping Grunts, zeroing in on distant Jackals and furiously dueling Elites. Thankfully, new foes enter the picture before long. The Prometheans offer a robust tactical challenge, from the infuriating regenerative abilities of the floating Watchers to the savage Crawlers and teleporting Knights.
Each battlefield becomes a tense puzzle as you decide which bad guy to engage first. That's why the widely spaced checkpoint placement is such a bummer; I love the searing difficulty the game exhibits on higher challenge levels, but "Halo 4" often sends its players too far back as a punishment for failure.
Master Chief has new toys to bring into the fight, including several powerful new guns. Added to the array already introduced previously, the armament variety is impressive, and trying them all out is fun. The game encourages experimentation by severely limiting ammo on most pick-ups. At times, the strategy succeeds by making players use all the tools at their disposal. However, frequently running out of ammo slows the momentum of the action as you're forced to scavenge for an alternative.
Levels are thoughtfully structured and entertaining. One breathtaking environment is followed by the next, and several alternative game-play sequences offer variety, from the new walking mech Mantis battles to high speed flights in outer space. The ever-changing locations and set pieces give Master Chief's adventure a scope and grandiosity that's lacking in many other shooters.
For many, "Halo 4"'s excellent campaign will be secondary to the endless battles of the newly introduced Infinity multiplayer. An integrated cooperative and competitive narrative tracks the progress of your Spartan as he or she trains aboard a UNSC ship and then heads out on missions, ranking up and improving on the way. Advancing your character is a joy, as you unlock armor pieces, customizable loadouts and bonuses to boost performance in battle. Playing with friends is seamless; only time will tell if matchmaking can stand up to the rush that will hit after launch.
A few small changes to the flow of competitive multiplayer help "Halo 4" feel more vibrant and replayable. Points have overtaken kills as the primary scoring mechanic. Random powerful weapon drops remove the chance for experienced players to camp equipment spawns. Support abilities and customized loadouts offer more flexibility. Combat is fast and intense, and hews close to what I've always loved in the series. New multiplayer modes such as Regicide and Dominion join perennial favorites such as Slayer, Oddball, and Capture the Flag, and all the modes play out across an impressive set of more than a dozen strong new maps.
Along with the returning option to play through the campaign cooperatively with friends, 343 Industries introduces an episodic cooperative experience with enormous potential to change the way post-release content is delivered. Spartan Ops brings a new cinematic episode every week, along with five connected missions. The large battles and objectives available in these missions are ideal for a group of friends. I'm disappointed that this new cooperative mode replaces Firefight, but I'm stoked about a continuing narrative that I can follow after the game is out.
Multiplayer is rounded out by the return of Forge and Theater options for the more creative. Each of the multiplayer maps plus several variants can be fleshed out into wholly new levels inside Forge. I especially appreciate the new tools to make iteration easier, from magnets that click pieces together, to simple button taps that replicate your last object placed. Along with broadened options for environmental effects, such as gravity shifting, I can't wait to see what the community comes up with.
Whether I am watching a grenade explode a Promethean into a shower of sparks or charging with friends at my side through a cooperative adventure, "Halo 4" makes the series feel new again. 343 Industries' clear affection for the property shines through, leaving me thrilled to join Master Chief for another decade in defense of the galaxy.